Friday, February 21, 2014

Day 105: Math and Music

A student casually mentioning the Mormon Church at the start of geometry led me into a 25 minute talk about comparative religions, which led to a discussion of why there is a disproportionate number of marathon winners from a certain tribe in Kenya.

I finally got back to where I WANTED to be, which was talking about math and music.  If you have not seen this video demonstrating the connections between the Fibonacci Sequence and the song Lateralus by Tool, you should take the 9 minutes and 24 seconds to watch it.

Go ahead.  I'll wait.
Wasn't that amazing???  My students certainly thought so!  I have enough kids in that class who are musically inclined that we were able to have a meaningful discussion about the nature of time signatures and how unusual they are in that song.

We talked about taking normal concepts and not destroying them, but bending them to the limits for the purpose of creation.  As usually happens when we start talking about a topic I find fascinating, the period went by VERY quickly and, without enough time for them to finish their Chapter 4 assessments from yesterday, I made it due on Monday.  I also told them that with greater time to work on it, my expectations of quality are increased.

In pre-algebra, we started talking about proportionality.  My campaign to ignore the distractions continues and, while I'm a little twitchy about the perceived chaos in my room, I'm finding a higher level of engagement among the quieter students.  The answers I'm getting to questions are more perceptive and accurate.

Getting active, productive participation in period 8/9 is still like pulling teeth, but I blame it on the fact that the kids are completely burned out by the end of the day, having had no breaks.

Have I mentioned that before? Our school schedule has students going from class to class from 7:45-2:50 every day with only a half hour for lunch where they are required to sit at a table for the duration.

When I have a lazy day at home, when I have nothing to do and spend the time sitting on the couch or at the computer all day, I find myself more tired at the end of the day than if I had been active.  I think the same happens with students who are forced to sit for 7 straight hours.

During period 9, my frustration and annoyance got the better of me.  One of students, who started the year very strongly, has been declining slowly over the past few months.  He brings his materials to my class, but no longer writes anything down and has quiet conversation throughout my entire class.  In order to show him that I wasn't ignorant of his non-involvement, I asked him a question today.

"Is number 4 proportional or non-proportional? Thumbs up for proportional, thumbs down for non" I asked the class, as I had for the previous 3.

I looked around at responses calling on students to explain their reasoning.  I called on the student previously mentioned.

"You said it was non-proportional. Why do you think that?"

**crickets**  He refused to make eye-contact and instead, put his hand in front of his face, giggled and whispered to his friend "I'm not answering him."

So I waited, looking at him with anticipation and patience.  After 30 seconds, I reiterated my question.  "Why do you think it's non-proportional?"

"You might as well move on. I'm not saying anything."

Something inside me snapped.

I waited for him to give me an answer.

It took 17 minutes of me patiently looking at him while he continued to giggle and tell his friend that he wasn't going to answer.

I shouldn't have done this.  Even as it was happening, I was thinking what a bad idea this was.  I shouldn't engage with students in this fashion because even if I win, I lose.  But I did it anyway.  What happened was amazing.

The students started getting pissed off.  At him.

"Dude, just answer his question!"
"Why are you being a jerk?"
"It's a simple answer!"
"If you don't know it, say so!  There's nothing wrong with that!" (This one blew me away.)
"Mr. Aion, can we help him out?"
"Can I do this one?"

It continued like this.

I waited patiently, re-asking my question every few minutes or so to remind him that I hadn't forgotten him.

Out of the corner of my eye, my students continued working on the practice problems and, anticipating that I would be willing to wait for their answers as well, started explaining their answers to each other.

He finally gave in, pressured from the other students who wanted to check their answers with me and realizing that I wasn't going to blink.

"I don't know why because I wasn't paying attention."
"Thank you for your honesty. I appreciate that," I said without sarcasm.  "Can anyone help him out? Why is this one non-proportional?"
"When you reduce the fractions all the way, they aren't equal!"
"Excellent! What about number 5?"

And we moved on without a hiccup.

I asked the student to stay after class for a minute so I could talk to him about the exchange (or lack thereof) but he refused to stay.

I hate how I reacted to him.  I put him on the spot in a way that wasn't considerate to him or to the other students.

But the results for everyone else were remarkable!  It doesn't excuse the interaction and I will apologize to him on Monday, but it certainly makes me think about what we allow students to get away with.  If we set our expectations high, they will live up to them.

The same will happen if we set them low.


  1. Would you say that your response to him was non-proportional to his response to you?

  2. Tool!!! My favorite band! :) I've played that for my kids too and they loved it!

    1. Mine ate it up! Not like anything they've ever heard before and they were entranced!
      "Can we listen to more? I think I'm going to have nightmares!"

      It was incredible!

  3. You had me at "Math and Music"! I actually don't know the band but may play that one for my class - noticed that on the YouTube page the guy gives a link to download an flv. *yoink* Did a quick search, noticed Tool also have a song "Parabola", but it all seems a bit too metaphorical for my taste. But then, I'm a guy who goes literal on the question "Which Numbers Love Each Other" too:

    As far as the waiting game goes, you seem to have good self awareness, and we all corner ourselves from time to time. I'm reminded of a time students were getting grabby at report cards, and I snapped at a girl to get her hands off my desk and then generally at all of them to back the hell off, but she took it personally and was nearly in tears. Still feel kind of bad about that months later.

    I think that after the first minute, you were pretty much committed to going the whole way, to avoid repercussions later. Keep setting the bar high. Trust yourself to fix any little errors that creep in.

  4. I had a similar experience the other week. I was trying to implement what Lemov labels "No Opt Out" in Teach Like a Champion -- "At its core is the belief that a sequence beginning with a student unable (or unwilling) to answer a question should end with that student giving the right answer as often as possible, even if it is only to repeat the correct answer."

    From the first time I asked the question to my student (who has a habit of checking out and not listening to me or his classmates) to him admitting he didn't know was probably three minutes -- and it didn't end there. I told him to phone a friend, and after he did I asked the friend not to give an answer, but a hint for what to look at in order to arrive at the answer. With that hint given, I returned to my student with the original question. 60 seconds, then "I don't know". I tell him to phone a different friend. He does, a new hint is given, and I return to him with the original question. "I wasn't listening". We phone a new friend (at this point "friend" isn't the best descriptor, as the rest of the class was soon responding just like yours did). Ultimately we reach the point where his "phone a friend" is no longer giving a hint, but the actual answer -- and still he is refusing to reply. I don't think we reached 17 minutes, but it was definitely a lot longer than I should really have spared.

    But, the "phone a friend" phrase was spontaneous and worked really well. We've pulled it out a couple times since then, to great success.

  5. Sometimes you do have to hold your rank, and make it clear that expectations are expectations. The fact that the group went with you, and you were able to use the group and their recognition of their needs & shared goals, to show the student that answering your question with an explanation was required for being part of the group, is HUGE. I've seen teachers get into power struggles where they don't have the clear expectations and the class aligned with them, and that's a disaster. The students are like, "C'mon, leave him alone, can we move on, this is awkward..." and that's no good. I don't know whether or not I agree with you that this was a bad situation to get into... sometimes I think it's okay to put the student in a situation where you are telling him, "this is how I will respond until you meet expectations," and if you really can control your response until he meets expectations, then it's not a power struggle, it's a show that you believe in and will hold everyone to your expectations. Saying, "if you don't do x then you have to leave," gives the student 2 behaviors he can choose not to do. Bad news and a clear power struggle with nothing but winners and losers. But saying, "if you do not answer my question in some way, I will not move on," gives him the power to make a decision that has clear consequences. On the other hand, he doesn't necessarily get to save face which is so important for adolescents, and you don't get to interact with other students, which is so important for teaching. So it's a tough call but it may have been a way to signal that your instructions mean something, that you have them because you believe everyone can answer your questions*, and that you are willing to let them suffer the consequences of not adhering to the activity. The * is for making sure that the questions you ask are ones students can answer at low personal/emotional cost if they haven't yet bought into risk-taking in math class. Leading questions can be tough because getting them wrong publicly is scary... whereas truly open-ended, guess-or-estimation questions, opinion-based questions, or "how did you personally think about this?" questions have much lower barriers to entry. So for the un-bought-in student, trying to frontload those at the beginning of class/the year/each new phase in your relationship, can be powerful.


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